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Initial post: May 3, 2011 11:34:53 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 5, 2011 11:59:20 PM PDT
I posted the following on Amazon uk forum to launch a discussion. I try it here too.
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During the last months, after discovering Hummel who one year ago was for me, just like not long ago for everybody, a mere name among hundreds of others, I bought more than 50 CDs, so that I have almost all his recorded works, altogether near 90.

I am surprised at myself: I practically never listened to anything else than the few top masterpieces of the few top geniuses, one or two dozens of each: Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, sometimes Bartók, and to one or two of a few others. Only to the highest of the highest summits, that which makes them top geniuses; all my attempts at listening more than ten or fifteen minutes to anything else, for example by pulling out something from my quite large LP-collection or turning on the radio, usually end in frustration. Later on I discovered Haydn who in my youth was played only in concerts for children, and never on the radio; eventually he joined and, with respect to the number of works repeatedly listened to, even surpassed the handful of my favorites. This was nothing to be surprised about since he is one of those handful of giants. But Hummel is not such a giant, except with one single piano sonata. Why do 15 or 20 of his other works, which after all fall short of being among the above-mentioned highest of the highest, intrigue me so much that I am compelled to "mono"-maniacally listen to them again and again? Take both his piano quintets for examples. I assume everyone who knows them will agree that however good and original they are - with here and there some oddities, which I think are the least of our worries in musical matters -, they fail to reach the quality and the depth of, say, Beethoven's E minor or F minor quartets. Nonetheless I long ago stopped putting these quartets on the record-player (I am of course addicted to several SQs of Beethoven, but not to these), while presently I can't listen to enough Hummel. Even some of the most light-minded among his show-pieces for piano, full of stereotyped runs, triplets and other empty decorative mannerisms characteristic of Chopin whom I've never been able to put up with, attract me to some extent.

As it is evident from the above, I am not uncritical of Hummel. I have respect for that kind of composer - his epitomes are in my mind César Franck and Bruckner - who owes his lasting fame to his having laboured hard to find his distinctive personal language. Beethoven or Brahms, too, forced stubbornly their way, taking no notice of their surroundings, but in their case this is not obvious since their music is variegated, quite easily, if not immediately, captivating, saturated with invention; while the sedulous composer's style is a laboured one, monotonous and dull, unless yourself work hard to penetrate their world. (I don't do that.) Hummel didn't work hard to fully elaborate and exploit his own inventions; he more often than not contented himself with more easily achieved popularity.

At some point he wanted to forsake the career of virtuoso and to devote himself entirely to composing, but his wife prevented him from doing so. When I am listening to Hummel's serious and masterly written string quartets, not imitating either Mozart or Beethoven - the lazy fellow wrote only three of them -, or to his unusual and enigmatic, often stunningly "Schumannesque", character pieces Opp. 18, 58, 59, 109, 123 for piano solo, or to his beautiful, tastefully melancholic Variations Op. 78, or to his glittering ballet music Sappho of Mitylene, not to mention the tempestuous F sharp minor sonata, I can't help being angry with this woman - and with her husband... To sum it up, Hummel deserves less respect than the Francks and the Bruckners, his music is probably less deep from some "objective point of view" (I believe there must exist something like that) - but you need not work hard to avoid boredom... This is a bloody talented, versatile and original guy who wrote a lot of very good and freshly interesting music in various styles and spirits, classical, romantic, Biedermeier and unclassifiable, not necessarily in the classical style earlier and in the others later. He wrote very bad music too, as almost every composer. His bad music is probably worse than the worst of all the romantic composers of some renown, but at his best he is better than most of them.

Instead of analyzing my own musical idiosyncrasies let's guess what the mechanisms of such long-lasting neglects or disqualifications by the whole musical community may have been.

*

It is a commonplace in the CD inlays, which seem to have been copied from one another, as well as on the internet, that Hummel is neither as great as he was thought in his lifetime nor as bad as he was held after, so that he doesn't deserve oblivion. The tenor is that he did not reach Schubert's and Beethoven's Olympian heights but is an honest MINOR composer who learned well his craft from Mozart, Haydn, Clementi, and who, oddly enough, had some PRESCIENCE of Schubert's, Chopin's, Mendelssohn's and Schumann's innovations. One author, who otherwise praises him, writes that in one of his works "the listener is startled ... by a freakish anticipation of a device in the Andante religioso of Bartók's Third Piano Concerto". Someone in a musical blog says that another work seems like a REHASH of Mendelssohn (the work referred to was published when Mendelssohn was not yet born) and a Russian pianist goes so far as to declare without further ado that Hummel's Piano Sonata in F sharp minor - published when Schumann was 9 years old and probably written years earlier - "is [not just: seems to be] A CLEAR IMITATION of Schumann"...

It is tempting to say: What accounts for this oddity is that Hummel's sooth-sayings are but isolated sparks, less good and less consistently elaborated than what they foretell. This is not entirely false; nonetheless those non-classical works of his are also good enough. I think the true reason is a mere optical illusion. If Hummel is by now resuscitated and not called anymore "the hero of respectable mediocrity", putting him in the shade of Beethoven and Schubert and seeking excuses for him is not essentially different. And since his prefabricated image is that of a MINOR, SECUNDARY music-maker from the CLASSICAL period, we are simply unable to admit that he could have been the initiator of something new and non-classical: no, only Schumann, Chopin, Mendelssohn invented new things, Hummel could only imitate them by peeping through the keyhole into the future... He can only be a "bridge" connecting Mozart to Chopin, but Chopin cannot be a bridge connecting Hummel to, say, Rachmaninov.

Hummel seems to have been the only second-rate music-maker of the whole music history ... I never read or heard a propos of any of the hosts of composers of various periods appraisals of the kind "though he did not reach Bachian/Beethovenian/Bartókian etc. heights, nonetheless he...". Mendelssohn, Liszt, César Franck, Borodin, Dvořák, Grieg, Chabrier, Reger, Smetana are never judged by Brahms' yardstick, which might make them look secondary and not so important. Moreover, when a composer is accepted as primary and great, everything he wrote is tacitly accepted as great or at least important; at any rate, everything he wrote is sacred. Not so with Hummel.

Hummel's falling out of favour, as explained everywhere, is not unlike Haydn's. It has been told and retold that in the context of the changed tastes the spirit of their music seemed outmoded. Haydn's cheerfulness, "hackneyed humor" and "boring regularity" were uncalled-for in the middle of romantic expectations of fatefulness, loneliness, mournful introspection, or on the contrary of empty break-neck acrobatic virtuosity, eccentricity or bombastic grandiloquence. This seems reasonable. But think that by the same token Mozart, whose cheerfulness and humor are perhaps less inborn than Haydn's but outwardly little different, should have suffered the same fate; his tragic or mourning works (just like Beethoven's and Schubert's) are but a handful. His tragic handful Haydn has not left unwritten either.

Hummel has, except for his great sonata. But even this, one of the stormiest of all stormy compositions, had not remained unforgotten. Ducas, Lalo, Rimsky-Korsakov did achieve posthumous fame with just one work, neither tragic nor deep.

In the case of Hummel we gather from the scarce available sources of information that in 1830 all of a sudden he started to outlive himself. E.g. from one of two CDs of the pianist Joanna Trzeciak: "around 1830 his style [as a composer]... fell out of fashion; Liszt, Paganini had now taken center stage..." Other authors mention in the same context Chopin, Schumann and Mendelssohn.

This is sheer nonsense. How can his style, which foretells these very composers' style, fall out of fashion just when the foretold style becomes fashionable? At the same time we are unremittingly taught that Chopin and Liszt held him in the greatest esteem... The inclusion of Paganini above lays bare the confusion. What does this exclusively violin composer, whose "works were criticized for lacking characteristics of true polyphonism, as pointed out by Ysa˙e", another violonist, have to do with Hummel? "The orchestral parts for his concertos were often polite, unadventurous, and clearly supportive of the soloist" etc., as we can read in Wikipedia. By the way in the companion disc of Trzeciak it is stated, probably by the same author, that "Hummel remained a popular composer until the second half of the 19th century..."

Allan Badley (in the CD "Oberon's magic horn") et al. relate the story how after Hummel's triumphal concerts in London in 1830 a second concert tour A YEAR LATER was ruined because everybody ran to hear Paganini who happened to be touring that city at the same time. From Schumann's life story we learn that nearly at the same time the young Robert wanted to leave his teacher and future father-in-law Wieck to go to learn piano -not composition - with Hummel; Wieck and others wanted to dissuade him, saying Hummel was ten years behind the times; meaning: as a pianist.

The contention that Hummel AS A COMPOSER fell out of fashion may easily have come from a statement that his style of PLAYING THE PIANO fell out of fashion.

I feel the real reason of the ostracisms is far more accidental and superficial than we are willing to admit it. At some point people pick up some casual utterance, which starts rolling and growing like a snowball and ends up an established common wisdom that you cannot shake off anymore.

We read in a musical book (by W.J. Turner) that J.J. Rousseau's opera, produced in 1753, was "often repeated until 1829, when some wag (supposed to be Berlioz, who, however, denied it) gave it its death-blow by throwing an immense powdered perruque on the stage." You would say an opera like Mozart's Figaro could not so easily be killed by a perruque. But Haydn's whole music WAS killed by a powdered perruque - the one which he himself wore and which by the uncombed 19th century was seen as worn by his music... Today, after Haydn has been resuscitated, few persons would deny that his music is the less constrained and the most youthful of all. Few UNBIASED persons; this is the clue to everything.

The 19th century has given silly nicknames to many works of Haydn: The Bear, The Hen, The Frog. A piece of music with such a nickname is killed before you start to listen to it. A musical expert indignantly refutes the idea of another expert that Mozart's G minor symphony was inspired by Haydn's No 83 - "The Hen" - in the same key, by exclaiming that we can find there "no echo of Haydn's FARMYARD!" He had obviously forgotten how eagerly Mozart sought the scores of Haydn's symphonies. Of two other symphonies, again in the same key (C major), Haydn's got the nickname The Bear and Mozart's, Jupiter. Just like both G minor are akin in spirit, so are the two C major. But even if Mozart-worshipers indignantly refute this notion and say Mozart is better than Haydn, they must admit that the difference between them is after all not the one between a god and a zoo-keeper... The name of a still smaller creature, the Frog, too, was given to a monumental work, one of the greatest of the whole string quartet repertory, by the way lacking even the slightest trace of Haydn's supposedly omnipresent cheerfulness.

A few early authorities set the ton. E.T.A. Hoffmann (possibly without malice) said his music is from before the Fall of man, while that of Mozart and Beethoven are from after. This means absolutely nothing but sounds well and profound. Berlioz walked out when the musicians struck up Haydn. Schumann wrote Haydn is a gentle old relative whose anecdotes are nice but from whom there is nothing to be learned. I assume Schumann had been taught as a child some didactic Haydn sonatinas and heard later at some concerts goodness knows which casually chosen light entertaining pieces but otherwise didn't know anything in depth of Haydn's whole output. There is nothing impossible about that. It is terribly easy to form an opinion on someone or something on the basis of a scrap of experience, even if you are Schumann. I admit I fall into this trap again and again... By the way the stupid condescending expression "papa Haydn" comes from Haydn himself; originally this simply meant that he was, already in his thirties, the head of the whole music business at the ducal court.

As to Hummel, Schumann certainly did know his works, at least to some extent. He declared Hummel's Sonata in F sharp minor "a titanic work". It is really titanic and feverishly running forward, even more than it would do if written by Schubert or Schumann. And it could have been written by whichever of them, although precisely with its titanism, as well as with its obsessive ostinatos, it is actually more Schubert-like than Schumann-like. In both cases it would contain more meditative episodes; as a child of Schubert it would have been given more extensive developments of its musical ideas; it would have a trio-section in the middle of the second movement and a scherzo after it etc., but even as it is both younger composers would readily have signed it as their own. Now the same Schumann wrote about Hummel's 24 Etudes: "Who would deny that most of these etudes are masterfully conceived and completed. (...) But they ... completely lack ... fantasy." A pocket dictionary of music that quotes this adds: "No doubt this judgment can be extended to all the other works of Hummel excepting the bold F sharp minor Sonata, which is an ODD (!) romantic darting into its classicist environment." When I was already mad about this sonata I read and believed this cocksure absurdity, even though I was familiar with the poor quality of the dictionary and knew of Schumann's opinion on Haydn... The author of the dictionary, for whom almost every never-heard-of composer is nothing less than outstanding, surely did not open the scores of "all the other works of Hummel" to write this peremptory verdict aping Schumann; indeed he evidently didn't even know the commonplaces about Hummel's compositions having directly influenced Chopin. Schumann certainly did know very well the 24 etudes - but you are all the more stunned when you listen to them...

Echoing commonplaces is an easy way to avoid thinking. Uttering devastating or condescending criticisms is a pleasure; they mean: "I am smarter than this guy!" Happily, generous people did much to convince the musical world that Hummel, as well as Haydn, were smarter than their fastidious critics.
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